VIFF review: Filmmaker's reverence for Mohawk activist pays dividends in "Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again"

The National Film Board production will have two live screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival

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      Mohawk filmmaker Courtney Montour grew up two streets away in Kahnawake from legendary Indigenous women's-rights activist Mary Two-Axe Earley.

      Despite this, Montour never met Two-Axe Earley, who died in 1996.

      But Montour still retained a lifelong fascination for this courageous and down-to-earth activist who left a lasting imprint on the country.

      "I wanted to know you better so I began to collect every fragment of your past that I could find," Montour says in her deeply personal 34-minute short film, "Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again".

      For more than two decades, Two-Axe Earley advocated for an Indian Act amendment to eliminate a blatantly discriminatory section. This assimilationist measure took away Indigenous women's Indian status if they married a non-Indigenous person, as well as the status of their children.

      The effect was to reduce the number of officially recognized First Nations people, thereby diminishing their political clout, and making it easier for corporations to gain access to natural resources.

      It also had a profound impact on her life as she lost friends by deciding to continue to the fight to regain her identity.

      "Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again" was produced by the National Film Board and is being screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

      The 1979, Mary Two-Axe Earley (centre) participated in a four-day walk to Ottawa to protest legislated discrimination against First Nations women.
      Odette DesOrmeaux

      The film features audio and video that has not been heard or seen in decades, providing a well-rounded portrait of the Mohawk activist and the degree of discrimination that existed from the 1960s to the mid-1980s.

      Along the way, Two-Axe Earley encountered intense opposition from elected chiefs and councils, death threats from people on-reserve, and condescension from former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

      “I wish you and your sisters would take it out of your head that somehow we’re deliberately trying to frustrate the concept of equality," Trudeau says dismissively in the film. "At least in the law, everybody has assured you here that we’re not. You know, in a sense you’re equal when you think you’re equal. If you think you’re unequal, the law won’t change much.”

      In a clever move, Montour replays the final two lines in this clip, reinforcing the discriminatory tenor of the times.

      The legislation was only changed in 1985 after the Mulroney government had taken power.

      The use of still images and video of old reel-to-reel tapes helped provide a visual backdrop for Two-Axe Earley's stirring words, which permeate the film.

      The film is also intensely personal, thanks to a kitchen-table conversation with her son Ed, her friend and fellow activist Nellie Carlson, and a mother and daughter who've benefited from her struggle for justice, Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse and Isabella Calahoo-Zeller.

      It's an important story as the battle for First Nations women's equality has continued after her death, thanks to B.C. resident Sharon McIvor and other activists.

      As Mi'kmaq academic Pam Palmater has pointed out, full sex equality has not yet been achieved as cases are still before the courts.

      "The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found sex discrimination in Indian registration to be a root cause of violence against First Nations women," Palmater wrote on the National Film Board site. "This is why Mary’s life story and the equality movement she inspired are still relevant today."

      Indeed. 

      "Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again" is not only an important chapter in 20th-century history, but also provides an inspirational lesson for contemporary activists on the value of persistence.

      Video: Watch the trailer for "Mary Two-Axe Early: I Am Indian Again".
      "Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again" will have two live screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The first is at 9 p.m. on October 4 at the Annex and the second is at 4 p.m. on October 10 at the Annex. For  more information, visit the VIFF website.

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